Wednesday 31 July 2013

Natural Play and wildscapes in Berlin

In Berlin last month I was privileged to visit many natural play sites, meet the users, share fresh berries with parents and children and experience the hot, summer weather. As someone who concentrates primarily on the why questions, from my consultancy's research based design perspective, it was interesting to see both how the sites were developed, and how they were being used.

Given the extreme heat - it was 38C - young children and their families largely sought natural shade. They also enjoyed splashing about in water. The photos show a small neighbourhood park, what might be called a pocket park, surrounded by mixed social housing, privately owned apartments and a residential care home for seniors. Around the edges and through the middle of the park deciduous trees have been planted to effect summer shade, while allowing winter light in to the surrounding buildings. Birds flock to the mixed plantings, attracted by insects, fruits and flowers. The berries I mentioned are planted alongside the main paths and include currants, raspberries and blackberries. Local people tend the plants, pruning as required, and picking and eating the ripe fruit as they enjoy the public space.

Families use the space as an extension to their home. As a publicly owned resource, it is theirs to enjoy. Small inflatable paddling pools are brought to the park, and filled from the pump. Water pistols are filled from the paddling pools and children shriek with delight as they soak their parents. The extensive use of trees and sand allows for exploratory play - creation and destruction, exploring the tensile strength of wood as a branch is bounced on until it breaks. There are abundant spaces to play hide and seek, and outdoor table tennis tables for older users.

So much of natural play is about how a space is managed. In Berlin the parks managers I met take a tolerant view of natural play. The children and their extended families value the spaces set aside for their enjoyment, and protect them from misuse. They are also quick to help out with official plantings of new trees, shrubs and edible plants, or to organise 'guerrilla gardening'efforts whereby some parks and playgrounds are planted with things the parents want to see there, without waiting for permission to come from the authorities.

In talking with teachers and health practitioners many of the childhood ailments from other parts of the world are absent from Berlin. This state of good health is attributed to the robust mental health of children well connected with nature, who spend time playing outdoors throughout the year. It is dependent on the availability, design and management of such pocket parks as healthy environments. With ecological health comes human health and well-being. Natural play connects children and their families with nature, bringing inter-generational benefits to the wider community.

Copyright 2013. Gayle Souter-Brown. All rights reserved.

Monday 3 June 2013

Natural play and its effect on behaviour

Have a look at this video on natural playgrounds in Berlin You Tube natural play video. It says everything really.

I am going on a study tour to Berlin led by the acclaimed Norwegian architect Frode Svane in 2 weeks time so will post  my findings, and some photos, after that.
We were delighted to win the European design competition to develop a natural playground for a prestigious international school in Moscow, Russia. The scheme is challenging in that everything we put into the natural play scheme must work year round. The playground is under a heavy snow cover for 5 months of the year, so tunnels and boulder mounds must work when bare and when covered with snow. Swings must be sufficiently high off the ground so the children can access them when the ground level is raised with snow cover as well as during the brief summer months. Materials need to be robust - there are no cheap options in an environment that ranges from -20 to +35C.

Exposure to natural light is vital for the health and well-being of our children. The sun powers our energy flow systems, food webs and human health and well-being. In environments such as Moscow where it does not  get light until 11am in winter we need to encourage children to play outside. We need to give them an extra impetus and incentive to get outside, to enjoy the natural playground, even if it is dark! Working with the environment allows us to make the most of a potential negative and turn it into a positive. With fairy lights woven through abundant planting, the trees act almost as street lights, lighting the surrounding area in a magical way that emphasises the raw beauty of the winter wonderland. Once the children are engaged with their natural play space they will access it whenever they can, and make the most of the brief daylight hours.

This particular project comes with an existing site that provides design cues. The " Kremlin" is a massive climbing tower that gives the school character and a sense of location. Our natural playground has to soften the Kremlin, leaving it as the iconic centerpiece it rightly is, while blending it into the environment with planting and natural play features. We will post photos of the completed scheme when we're done.

With so much snow and ice about it can get very slippery. Again we are using that as an advantage and providing 'slides' - ice skating and luge runs. Where the risk benefits of natural play outweigh potential negatives the children have an opportunity to enjoy outdoor play. As play designers working to improve public space and school grounds designs we are constantly researching new ideas, reviewing existing research and getting to know our current and potential future clients better. We look to best practice examples to see what works best where, and why. For the Moscow project we have found inspiration in Canada, Germany, Norway and UK.

Nature deficit disorder causes known harm. In response to this we are working to reconnect children with nature through natural play, regardless of where they live. Our aim is to prevent childhood depression. This is no small task and we are grateful for the affirmation of our work from the IMF and World Bank. This year our attention is on Russia, UK and New Zealand. Next year we are looking forward to new natural play projects in Tanzania and the US. 

Monday 14 May 2012

Nature deficit disorder

The environmental benefits of re-connecting people of all ages with the natural world, come from greater understanding of and respect for the environment. To make that connection meaningful requires personal experience. We are familiar with ‘armchair travel’ documentaries and have watched as wildlife photographers take us down the Zambezi River. What we miss with the virtual experience is the smell of the earth, the taste of the fresh berries, the feel of the sun warming our back.

People value special places, care for them and in so doing care for themselves and those around them. When we re-connect with Nature we re-connect our communities, get active, get healthy and we all benefit. With pressing environmental concerns adding to physical and mental health issues it’s time to re-connect, build the linkages, value our varied skills and work together. Health practitioners need to work with  landscape professionals, who in turn must work to support the efforts and initiatives of educators, environmentalists, academics, local communities and their representatives.

The problems and possible solutions described in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods are not unique to New Zealand, USA or any other country. They are problems now spread across the world. There has never been a better time to think global, act local. The challenge is to do it with shrinking funding. That’s where the benefits of connecting professionals and budgets become tangible. My measly budget added to your measly budget makes a bigger budget. Together we can achieve more, avoid doubling up of services, capture a wider ‘market’ to provide the natural connection opportunities sustainable communities need.

Nature deficit and sustainability are about more than just the planet’s resources, the community of birds and the trees; it’s also about the health of the people who live there and their hopes for the future. The web of life connects us all. When we destroy a part of the web we destroy a part of ourselves, whether through depression, rickets, obesity or disease.

Friday 11 May 2012

There is a lot of debate over natural play, the benefits vs risks of natural loose materials as impact attenuating surfaces, and the high cost (environmentally and financially) of rubber wet pour. But what do we learn from all this? I think that although as play design professionals we are coming from differing professional and personal experience our common ground is that we all aim to help build happy, healthy, confident children.

Depending on the community we are designing for shapes their needs and our design response to those needs. Sand has excellent play value - which is why kids love going to the beach. Older kids make use the sensory mass to lie on the warm sand, run and fly kites, build sand castles, dig trenches, build whole cities, bury their little brothers, collect shells and feathers. Young ones squish sand between their stubby toes; pour it endlessly from one bucket to another.  However, sand does compact and I broke my back falling onto wet sand (admittedly at speed and from a height, off a horse), so it wasn't so much fun then. I was lucky. I can now walk.

All this tells me that yes sand has great play value and that being able to manipulate the environment is good for learning about life. Natural play is about reconnecting with the natural world. In an urban setting with no access to a beach it is fun to be able to recreate the environment for land-locked communities. The decision to use an IAS, whether wet pour epdm or sand /bark mulch is as much about health and safety as it is around softening the hard urban landscape. We will never make anything completely safe, but we can lessen or attenuate the impact. - Although falling off a mountain hurts, if our children are climbing a mountain we hope they have matured sufficiently to accept risk and personal responsibility. In an urban play situation we are providing an opportunity for them to learn and mature at their own pace.

I do not believe the choice of IAS is an all or nothing situation. It is possible to introduce nature through playable planting into a wet pour environment, to further soften the hardscape. (‘Sand’ coloured wetpour under high equipment with coastal grass planting on artificial ‘dunes’ has been done) It is also possible to provide community-sized sandpits, and climbing areas, but not necessarily on top of each other. In tight funding situations we need to look at play value for money spent. If a community need high climbing opportunities, some of the money will need to be spent on IAS. In a multi-generational play setting it may be more appropriate to provide a giant sand pit, with a few swings to one side.

It all comes back to what does the community really need and, working within local parameters, how can we best meet that need? (note, this is often quite different to what they think they want!)

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Natural play in urban settings

You may think what the play industry describes as natural play only occurs in urban settings. However, if you look at children growing up in rural areas, their play is generally natural. They climb trees, swing out over rivers on flimsy lengths of rope, dig holes in earth banks, create huts and hideouts in long grass, under old pieces of wood and create their own fun.They thrive on few rules, except those made up to play new games. As adults those children are more likely to be entrepeneurial, manage suucess and failure well, are sociable, ready to explore new options and enjoy good mental and physical health.

Urban children can experience a similar range of natural play opporuntites, but only if we, the adult authority, allow it. We make the rules that state no treehouses may be home-made skate ramps may be left on the footpath/ climbing on the sunshetler roof of the toddler play equipment in the local park.

That leaves us with a challenge. As most people in the western world now live in urban areas what sort of communities do we want for the future? What sorts of people do we need to be the economy that will support us in our old age? How we shape our children today will have a direct bearing on us in our latter years.

Already we have seen our elderly neighbour incarcerated by her family as being 'too much trouble'. The 'me' generation emerging from teen-hood now have largely missed natural play in their formative years. They expect life to be 'as expected'. When it is not they do not know how to deal with it (and lock their mother away in a home rather than deal with her changing circumstance).

Natural play is about much more than a few logs in a playground, is about giving children the freedom to play. As adults we can make it easy for them or hard. It is up to us to allow a bit of mess, the chance of a skinned knee if they fall. It is up to us, as landscape architects, as urban planners, as parents, as city planners, as teachers and health care providers to provide for free natural play, even in urban settings.